Estemirova: brave campaigner against abuse in Chechnya

MOSCOW, Valerie Leroux - Natalya Estemirova was an award-winning campaigner who tirelessly investigated human rights abuses in Chechnya despite the obvious dangers of probing the murky world of government-backed militias.
On Monday Estemirova had highlighted the death in suspicious circumstances of Madina Yunusova, a young Chechen woman whose husband was suspected by the authorities of being a rebel.

Estemirova: brave campaigner against abuse in Chechnya
This was the everyday action of a woman who was not frightened to stick her neck out time and time again, investigating the kidnappings, disappearances, and murders that have blighted Chechnya's recent past.
Two days on she was abducted in the Chechen capital Grozny and hours later her corpse was found with gunshot wounds to the head and chest in the neighbouring Caucasus republic of Ingushetia.
Estemirova, murdered at the age of 50, worked for the Russian human rights group Memorial. She received the families of victims at her office in Grozny and helped them cope -- whether with the police bureaucracy or with a judiciary that seemed deaf to their pleas for help.
On July 9 she made public another affair that got big play on the Internet and was picked up by several NGOs specialising on the Caucasus: the summary execution of a suspected rebel in front of his village.
"Officials and foreign journalists had come by to see her because she knew the situation in Chechnya like no other. She was helping the people," said Tatiana Lokshina, deputy Moscow director at Human Rights Watch.
Russia ended its decade-long military crackdown in Chechnya in April, but Estemirova continued probing the wave of kidnappings there, convinced that the henchmen of Chechnya's pro-Russian strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov were responsible.
In a July 2 interview with the website which specialises on the Caucasus region she denounced a new method of repression being used against suspected rebels -- the withholding of pensions and family allowances to their loved ones.
Asked in an April 19 interview for Echo of Moscow radio about the role local Chechen leaders played in the ugly happenings in Chechnya, she pointed her finger at the highest corridors of power in Moscow.
"The main thing is who is in the Kremlin. With regard to human rights, Moscow remains the example for Chechen leaders," she said.
Born in Russia's southern Saratov region of mixed Russian-Chechen parentage, Estemirova graduated in history from Grozny University.
A teacher at a school in Grozny until her late 30s, she became a politically engaged journalist at about the time the second Chechen War started in 1999, when she began documenting civilian casualties.
She began working for Memorial the following year and won a string of foreign awards for her work.
Along with Memorial chairman Sergei Kovalyov, she was awarded the Robert Schuman Medal by the European Parliament in 2005 -- a distinction whose previous recipients include the late Pope John Paul II and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In October 2007, Estemirova was awarded the inaugural Anna Politkovskaya award. It was a particularly poignant distinction as the murdered Russian journalist was a close friend and colleague with whom she had worked on several cases in Chechnya.

Wednesday, July 15th 2009
Valerie Leroux

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